Powerful symbols from the birthplace of civilization

The Met spotlights Mesopotamia's widespread influence on ancient cultures with 400 artifacts

The "Great Lyre" of Ur (2550-2400 BC), with its golden bull's head, is just one of the dazzling objects on display at a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But next to it is a photo of another one of these extremely rare lyres. It has gone missing, part of the looting that has taken place across Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Similar photos appear throughout the Met's latest blockbuster exhibition, "The Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus," which opened Thursday and continues through Aug. 17. They serve as reminders of magnificent ancient art that may be lost forever.

Mesopotamia, a region roughly the equivalent of modern Iraq, is the focus of the Met show, which aims to spotlight this "cradle of civilization" and demonstrate how it influenced early cultures as far away as Greece in the West and the Indus River Valley in the East, in what is today Pakistan.

The exhibit has been a bittersweet undertaking for curator Joan Aruz, who has spent the past five years planning to display some 400 objects from 16 countries and nearly 50 public and private collections.

Her "great hope" was to help people appreciate the value of this art, she says. "Now it's taken on an even greater significance because it's a way of keeping the story [of Iraq's looted art] in the public eye, a way of educating the public to what is lost." The objects in the show "stand almost as a tribute," she says, "because they remind you of what is not there."

Though the show is impressive in its breadth, "the major collection was in Iraq," she says, including countless "absolute masterpieces that are irreplaceable." In addition, new undocumented objects were coming into Iraqi museums constantly, so just what has been lost may never be fully understood. "If the loss is as great as we think it is, ... it just appears that this is a major, major destruction."

Martha Sharp Joukowsky, a professor of archaeology and art at Brown University in Providence, R.I., estimates that perhaps "90 percent" of the ancient findings that have been unearthed in Iraq were still in the country before the recent looting. The materials in the Met show, she says, represent those collected before laws changed to require artifacts to remain in their country of origin. In retrospect, Ms. Joukowsky says, one can say, "Thank God!" some objects had gone abroad.

In the late 1990s, the Met's director asked his curators to propose shows that could celebrate the coming of the third millennium A.D. in 2001. "I started to think about what was going on in the third millennium BC, which was such a seminal period in the development of the world," Ms. Aruz says. Looking at the time when the first cities were created, when writing was invented, when the first works of art were made to honor gods and kings, would enable visitors to "understand a little more about ourselves - and a lot more about the ancient world that seems so remote."

She has divided the exhibition into two parts. The first examines the culture of Mesopotamia (Iraq) in 3000-2000 BC The second looks at the cross-fertilization that occurred between Mesopotamia and surrounding cultures, showing how they stimulated one another. Long before the establishment of legendary trade routes like the Silk Road, Mesopotamia was reaching out for new goods and ideas. An example of this can be seen in the development of "intercultural" objects, like images of the lion and bull, symbols of power and fertility, that emerged in the region.

Aruz couldn't obtain loans from either Iraq or its neighbor Iran, but other countries in in the Middle East and Asia did participate, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. Objects in the show include sculptures, jewelry, vessels, weapons, cylinder seals, and tablets. Formed from materials such as gold, silver, and semi-precious stones, they served to adorn homes, temples, royal courts, and burial chambers.

Many of the objects are being displayed away from their home institutions for the first time. The British museum lent the famous "Standard of Ur," a wooden box inlaid with mosaics that depict a Sumerian king as a priest and mediator responsible for the welfare of his people. The life-sized "Seated Statue of Gudea: Architect With Plan" (2090 BC), on loan from the Louvre, represents a ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash in a pious posture, with a layout of a temple in his lap and his hands joined in a position of honor for the deity Ningirsu.

The importance of the Mesopotamian culture represented in the show can't be overemphasized, Joukowsky says. Mesopotamia is the source of the earliest cuneiform writing and the earliest laws, as well as the first monumental architecture. It's the setting for much of the history that takes place in the Bible's book of Genesis, including Noah's flood.

Mesopotamia is "the beginning of it all," she says.

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